Windy City wards up for grabs

By Darryl Holliday

In an election season with a record number of candidates filed, some Chicago residents won’t have a choice in the elected representative of their ward.

Out of the 50 aldermanic elections taking place citywide on Feb. 22, seven candidates will run unopposed, leaving many Chicagoans, for better or worse, with at least four more years of the same leadership.

The reasons for such unimpeded campaigns range from common petition challenges to more complicated issues, such as money and clout.

“Frequently, the aldermen [who run unopposed] are pretty powerful aldermen like [Alderman Richard] Mell [33rd Ward] and [Edward] Burke [14th Ward],” said Dick Simpson, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That really perpetuates a power structure in City Council as well as in

the neighborhood.”

Mell and Burke are, in fact, on this year’s list of unchallenged aldermen, along with Marty Quinn (13th Ward), Patrick O’Connor (40th Ward), Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), Tom Tunney (44th Ward) and Ray Suarez (31st Ward).

According to Suarez, he is running unopposed because the residents of his ward are pleased with the work he does.

Initially, there were other candidates in the race for Suarez’s ward, which includes the Hermosa neighborhood. Suarez challenged all of them through various means, including signature discrepancies and debt owed to the municipal government.

“There were four [candidates] altogether, and I eliminated them all,” he said.

Hearings for candidacy objections are presided by the Chicago board of elections commissioners. The board has the initial power to decide which petitions are valid or not.

According to Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Commissioners, there were 425 objections filed this election cycle on a wide array of reasons ranging from the candidates’ failure to submit proper paperwork to candidate felony convictions.

“We went through all of them in 60 days—it was a rather dense docket,” Allen said. “It was a record.”

The numbering and binding of paperwork can come into play when an objection is filed.

“If you’re going to be an alderman and you’re going to be responsible for making and setting policy and passing legislation, you have to follow all the rules of the business,” Suarez said.

But, according to Simpson, it may not be so simple. He said non-opposition can have consequences for residents of a particular ward and the city as a whole by

undermining democracy.

Aside from not having a choice in their elected official, residents may begin to feel apathetic about their political power as a group when the winner of a given race

is predetermined.

“There will be a lower turnout of residents,” Simpson said. “Turnout is only high when the outcome is in doubt and the vote actually matters.”

In cases where an alderman is particularly powerful, such as Burke, who could not be reached for comment, money can be an influential factor in that outcome.

According to Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University, candidates are well within their rights to amass as much money as possible

for campaigns.

“Who’s to say what’s good or bad for democracy?” said Green.

Burke, who is also chairman of the City Council finance committee, recorded a total of more than $5 million in available campaign funds as of Dec. 31, according to the State Board of Elections.

This can present difficulties for would-be opponents. In many cases, the unchallenged candidate will have a large organization and/or significant funding—leaving many residents unable to go dollar-for-dollar in a prolonged campaign.

“They have way too much money and they have a ward organization of precinct workers that opposition candidates don’t think they can beat,” Simpson said.

According to Simpson, the history of non-opposition in Chicago goes back to the days of former Mayor Richard J. Daley, when as much as 20 percent of the council ran unopposed and were often rubber-stamps for the “machine.”

Though the city’s political structure has since changed, the effect of candidates running unopposed may remain the same for residents—a loss of political control.

“There’s going to be a bigger turnover in the council with up to 20 new aldermen coming in—so it’s not quite the same,” Simpson said. “But it’s still the same if you live in the ward.”